Monday, 31 August 2009

Kreativ Blogger

Thanks very much to Caroline Gill, of Caroline at Coastcard, for nominating me for a Kreativ Blogger award. My task now is to nominate seven more blogs for the award, not an easy task, because I can think of at least twice as many quality blogs that I visit pretty much on a daily basis. So I'm going to give it some thought, and return to it a bit later in the week (I'm aware that my blogging backlog is building up again - I have a post on Brixworth and another on Lee Harwood to finish and post).

In the meantime, go and have a browse through Caroline at Coastcard - it touches on all manner of literary and wildlife matters, has a distinct Welsh flavour to it, and puts bloggers like myself to shame with its regular updates.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Philippine flashback

Over at Bill of the Birds, Bill Thompson III has been blogging about Birdfair and the Philippines. Have a read, and even more importantly, listen to his podcast interview with Lisa Marie Paguntalan. It's a great story - moving and inspiring for anyone interested in conservation.

The picture of us in the Phillippines (I'm hiding under a Tilley Hat) was taken at the entrance to the Subterranean River on Palawan. David Tipling, one of the world's top bird photographers, is lurking at the back, having just fallen into the sea while trying to get out of the boat. Good job it was warm.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Captain Pouch and the Newton Rebellion

Feeling a bit more perky, and with the weather looking up too, I got in the car yesterday and went wandering. First, to Groby Pool, in a vain attempt to track down a Redstart (did see some lovely Spotted Flycatchers, though), but then on into the depths of previously unexplored Northamptonshire.

My target was Brixworth, a village containing what has been called the finest seventh century church north of the Alps.

It's to my great shame that I've never actually been there before, not even back in my university days when I was studying Anglo-Saxon history (the Mercian church was even my specialist subject), but it was worth the wait. More of that tomorrow, though, because on the way back, I couldn't resist a detour to a favourite, and rather less celebrated, historic site.

Newton is a tiny village between Kettering and Corby, situated down a dead-end lane. Its church, St Faith's (pictured above), is in a rather isolated position, down a small track in the middle of horse paddocks, with what's left of Rockingham Forest close by on all sides. Red Kites and Rooks fly overhead, and far away you can hear the traffic dashing past on the dual carriageways, but there's precious little sign of life otherwise.

The church is, in fact, a field studies centre, but the fact it's there at all is down to the efforts of the late JL Carr, novelist and Kettering headmaster, who battled to save it from demolition. That he did was partly because he was aware of Newton's hidden history.

For a few days, in the late spring of 1607, it was the centre of a peasants' rebellion that caused James I considerable concern, and resulted in the deaths of at least 40 villagers. The uprising was led by the mysterious figure of Captain Pouch, and the participants described themselves as levellers and diggers, names that would crop up again later in the turbulent 17th century.

Carr mentioned what happened in passing in one of his novels (The Battle Of Pollock's Crossing - superb, and usually overshadowed by his best-known work, A Month In The Country), and for years I'd assumed that he'd invented it. Only fairly recently did I find out that it was all true, and begin to research what happened.

I've also been writing a pamphlet-length sequence of poems, to accompany photographs by Tom Bailey, on the story of Captain Pouch, the Newton Rebellion, and the final, tragic slaughter at Goosepastures. Both Tom and I still have work to do, and I've been working fairly hard at revising some of the poems this week, but we're hoping that we'll be able to find a publisher at some stage.

But regardless of that, it's a fascinating and very tragic episode in English history. It's impossible not to feel for Pouch and his brave followers, latest in a long line of peasants willing to assert their rights in the face of arbitary rule by monarchs and aristocrats (their story reminds me of that of the villagers of Peatling Magna, not 20 miles away, who in 1265 arrested the king's marshal for "going against the commonwealth of the realm", just days after Simon DeMontfort and his forces had been bloodily scattered at Evesham). You even feel a little for Sir Edward Montagu, forced to suppress the rebels even though he had considerable sympathy for their cause. His family did take the Parliamentary side in the Civil Wars, but rather too late to avert the catastrophe that engulfed Newton and other similar communities.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Mark Goodwin: Else

Over the past year or so, I've seen Mark Goodwin read a couple of times, and he's been excellent on both occasions - entertaining, but also thought-provoking and genuinely enthralling.

I've recently finished reading his Shearsman collection, Else, and it fully lives up to expectations. He falls broadly into the non-mainstream/innovative camp, but what I enjoy about his work is that, while he attempts to stretch language into all sorts of new shapes, his concerns and ideas are always firmly grounded in the everyday, with a particular attention to ecological matters. He's a real master of the urban pastoral, too, or more precisely of documenting that fringe between the urban and the rural.

There's a real physicality to the language that it's impossible not to relish, and at times Goodwin coins evocative, spot-on word compounds that feel almost Anglo-Saxon, or like Old Norse kennings.

I will get round to writing a proper review of the book sooner or later, but for now there's one in the new issue of Tears In The Fence, which I've been enjoying. Other highlights for me so far include poems by John James and Luke Kennard.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Birdfair and more

I was at Birdfair over the weekend, and for the first time in ages it was blessed by three days of good weather. That meant that it was the busiest yet, but in between work and getting increasingly excited about the test match, it was good to catch up with a lot of old friends.

Since then, I've been struck down with the lurgy, so have only managed a brief bit of birdwatching over at Swithland Reservoir on Monday (mind you, there were six Black Terns there, plus a couple of Peregrines).

Staying in, sprawled on the sofa mainlining Lemsips, has allowed me to spend hours browsing The Birds of Leicestershire And Rutland, launched at the Fair. Now I'll admit that I can happily read pretty much any county bird atlas, but of course this one is special because it's my home county, and Rob Fray, Roger Davis, Dave Gamble, Andrew Harrop and Steve Lister have done a really fine job.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Read This!

I forgot to mention last week that there's a special London Poetry Festival issue of Read This magazine out now. Follow the link to find out how to get hold of a copy.

It includes poetry from McGuire, Rebecca Atherton, Joanne McKay, Alex Williamson, Susan and Miles Tepper, Sharon Harriott and Claire Askew. I've also got a poem, Effects, in there.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

It's that time of year again

I'll be at Birdfair, over at Rutland Water, tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, so pop along to Marquee 2 and say hello if you're there too. If I'm not there, I'll probably be hanging around the Peru stand, trying to get my hands on the free pisco sours.

Officially, it's work, but I'd be going anyway (although not all three days, admittedly), and this year we seem to have good weather for it. It does make it rather hot inside the marquees, but better that than a Glastonbury-style mudbath.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Beneath The Rime, by Siriol Troup

Siriol Troup comes from a Welsh family, but was born in Hong Kong and spent most of her childhood and teenage years abroad, in Africa, Germany, Holland and Iran. She read French and German at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and later returned there to teach 19th and 20th century French Literature.

Beneath the Rime
, from Shearsman, is her second collection of poems, following Drowning Up The Blue End, which was published in 2004 by Bluechrome. I interviewed her by email about the book and her writing in general. Read on to see the results, plus a couple of sample poems...

Could you tell me a little bit about your path to publishing your first collection?

I wrote a lot of poetry as a teenager but stopped when I went to university, and didn’t return to writing until after I’d had my four children. I was in the middle of trying to write yet another (terrible) novel, when a frozen shoulder left me unable to sit at a desk or computer for any length of time without being in agony. So I started writing poems again, mainly because they were shorter than novels and I could work on them at odd moments during the day. I sent some off to competitions, won a few prizes, which was very encouraging, and in 2002, I won the Poetry Monthly Booklet Competition, for which the prize was publication of a pamphlet of 25 poems (Moss) – which used up virtually everything I’d written since getting the frozen shoulder. A year or so later, Bluechrome wrote to ask if they could publish a first collection and in 2004 they published Drowning Up The Blue End.

Your own background is very cosmopolitan. How far has that helped you take a rather more oblique and original approach than your average British poet?

I suppose the main advantage of my background – living abroad and, more particularly, studying languages and European literature – is that my reading has been (and still is) very varied and I’ve always had to pay a lot of attention to semantics – the roots of individual words, their context, their connections, the cultural baggage they contain, the ghosts behind them. I once spent a whole afternoon listening to academics and translators discuss the difficulties of translating the German word unheimlich – that’s the sort of thing I find fascinating. I gave my husband the 20-volume OED for Christmas and almost wish I hadn’t – it’s such a distraction.

Many of the poems in the new collection are written in different personas – animal as well as human. Is this a way of tackling subject matter that might be more difficult to approach from a more obviously personal point of view?

Using different personas probably comes from my background in languages. I’ve got used to putting on voices, inhabiting minds other than my own. Getting under the skin of an elephant in the Coliseum or a dog hauling sledges to the North Pole opens up a whole world of possibilities, which is liberating for me as a writer and, I hope, for the reader too. It’s got to be more interesting than always droning on about myself. And as you suggest, it’s a way of approaching difficult subject matter more obliquely – death, sex, politics of gender, the sort of issues that might sound strident or pretentious if expressed in my own voice.

I particularly enjoyed the Infanta poems. Do you approach a sequence like that with a clear idea of how it will be structured, or is it more a case of worrying away at the same itch because you're continually drawn back to it?

Worrying away at an itch describes it perfectly. I’d done a lot of research on the Infanta and her family, and on Velázquez and his painting techniques, and I knew I wanted the sequence to have a loose narrative structure, but I had no idea how many poems I’d need (or be able) to write. I wrote about a dozen, then stopped and went on to other things. But I found I couldn’t get the Infanta out of my head, so I went back and wrote some more. From time to time, I still play around with a couple of poems I left out of the final sequence.

Tell us a little about your writing process – I liked very much the fact that, despite the strong narrative threads in many of the poems, you always allowed language to take centre stage. That seems to me to require a very difficult balancing act between careful crafting and spontaneity.

When I first have an idea for a poem, I try to sit on it for a few days before I start writing. The first draft usually comes quite quickly, then I put it away and come back to it later – weeks or even months later, if possible, so that I can look at it objectively and see what works and what doesn’t work. I rewrite obsessively, often going through dozens of drafts, but I try not to leave the original draft too far behind because those first sparks, although they’re often clumsily or ponderously expressed, are what give a poem its energy. A handful of poems in Beneath The Rime came fairly quickly – Detachment, Caged Elephants, Wall and some of the Infanta poems, for example – but the majority took me years to finish. Even now, I’m still working on poems I started six or seven years ago.

What was the process of publishing with Shearsman like? Was there a lot of editorial guidance?

Publishing with Shearsman has been wonderful. I can’t imagine a better experience. To give you an example: when Tony Frazer took Beneath The Rime, he told me he needed to trim the number of pages in the MS, and he pointed out five possible candidates for exclusion, though he was happy to hear appeals in their favour. If he’d chosen what I considered the best poems in the book, I would have questioned not only my own judgement, but more importantly, his – but the poems he picked out were precisely the ones I had reservations about myself. Throughout the process, he’s been responsive and insightful without ever being overbearing. His cover designs are brilliant, and his commitment to poetry from all over the world is really inspiring.

Country Living

Monday to Friday we’re alone with the rabbits,
Madame and I. Up at dawn with the smell
of wet straw and piss-a-bed, the piebald does
spaced out on ammonia behind the wire.

I slip the bolts, hear them jolt as I enter,
a skitter of hearts and toenails, whiskery hysterics.
Madame smacks my wrist: speak to them gently,
reward them when they come.

She calls them each by name, nuzzles and smooches,
nibbles their loose fur, their dippy tails –
mes biches, mes pucelles, mes allumeuses.
I clean their water-bowls and disinfect their beds.

On Sunday, she blocks her ears and weeps
into the casserole. Monsieur lays down his fork
and strokes her hand, then tucks in with relish,
slurping the thick juice until it trickles down his chin.

Pauvre Geneviève!
I take the afternoon off, light a candle
to St. Gertrude, let a boy in the market-place
stick his fist up my skirt.

The night I leave, I fill the bowls with foxgloves,
ivy, corn-lilies, creeping butterweed.
Push my fingers through the mesh.
Watch them come to me like whores.

Thirst and Slake

End of summer: the earth crackling like bark,
every layer peeled back, keening for rain.

How long it goes on – this see-saw
of dust and water, thirst and slake;
the leafing and unleafing of the trees.

No wind tonight. The moths hang
in the dark like flowers waiting to drop.

What pleasure to feel the whisper
of the mosquito! – his sly harpoon,
the itch of blood and hide, the flooding
of proteins and saliva; to know there will be
nights like this – rich-scented, wanton
with favours; the rustle of limbs
before the rains begin.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


Midlands-based Nine Arches Press, a number of whose books I've blogged about in the past, has just announced the launch of BookSwarm.

It promises:
  • Two membership offers at reasonable rates.
  • To help them keep up the good work by bringing you the best in contemporary poetry, if you become a Nine Arches Press supporter.
  • The first Nine Arches Press books (all full-length, single author collections in paperback) direct through the post as soon as they are published.
  • A membership discount of 20% on all other Nine Arches titles.
  • Exclusive previews of poetry from upcoming titles.
  • Plus free postage and packing on all orders.

For full details, follow this link.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

London reading

I read at the London Poetry Festival on Sunday night. It was a varied and enjoyable line-up, and I was just sorry that I wasn't able to see some of the other nights too. It was good to meet Simon Freedman and a number of other poets, though, and I'll have to make sure that I can see more of it next year.

My set-list was:

At Home
Pigeons, Trafalgar Square
The Meeting Place
Scorpio Over La Selva

The Ashes

In view of the fact that there are increasing calls for Mark Ramprakash to be recalled to the England team, seven years after the apparent end of his disappointing test career, I'd just like to remind Geoff Miller that I've never officially retired from international cricket, either.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Yo La Tengo!

Over at Surroundings, Rob Mackenzie has turned up a great clip of what are still pretty much my favourite band ever, Yo La Tengo. Enjoy!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

London Poetry Festival

Just another reminder that I’ll be reading at the 5th Annual London Poetry Festival, on Sunday, at Waterloo St John’s Church, SE1 (it’s opposite Waterloo Underground station). There are all sorts of poets appearing, and you can read more about it all here.

The evening starts at 7.30pm, with admission £5 / £3. There are also three more nights of poetry, spoken word, monologue and music, with the festival running from tomorrow (Friday) to the 10th (Monday), so you can buy a Weekend Ticket (Friday and Saturday, £8) or a Festival Ticket (all four nights, £15).

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Vagabond Holes

Some of the music of your youth stays with you because you find you've attached it to significant events, because it's effectively the soundtrack to your memories. Some you keep going back to simply because it's too good not to. With some, of course, both reasons hold true, and that's why The Triffids have been a pretty much permanent fixture with me for the last 20 years (I only cottoned on to them during their last ever UK tour, then worked my way through their back catalogue. Discovering them was a genuinely revelatory moment, too, but that's a story that can wait until another day).

A book, Vagabond Holes: David McComb and the Triffids, will be published by Fremantle Press on September 1st, looking at the life and work of the leader of this wonderfully individual band, who emerged from Perth, Western Australia, in the early 1980s and, relatively briefly, became the darlings of the London music press, before disappearing into undeserved obscurity.

McComb died, aged only 36, in 1999, and the book makes no attempt to tell either his or the band's story in full, but rather to collect a glorious miscellany of memoirs, scholarly essays, memorabilia, short fiction and poetry relating to them both.

The musicians contributing include ex-Triffids Jill Birt, Alsy MacDonald, Graham Lee, Robert McComb and Martyn Casey, plus the likes of Nick Cave, Steve Kilbey, Mick Harvey and (another of my Aussie musical heroes) Robert Forster.

Poet John Kinsella, a Perth contemporary of McComb, contributes a really fine elegy, while my poem Unquiet, one of several I've written over the years inspired by or in some way relating to The Triffids, also features.

A collection of McComb's poetry, Beautiful Waste, is also being published. I've not had chance to have a good look at it yet, but he was always a highly literary lyricist, so it should make good reading.

The books should be available at all good bookstores in Australia and New Zealand, or directly through the press's secure website. It's also hoped that it will be available through Amazon in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Horizon podcast

Yesterday I went over to the University of Warwick to record part of a podcast that Jane Commane and Matt Nunn of Nine Arches Press are putting together for the next edition of Horizon Review, in which they'll be looking at the Midlands poetry scene. They've been hard at work on it all week, interviewing poets and, of course, gettimng them to read their work, and now face the daunting task of editing down all the material they've gathered, but it should all be going live some time in October. I'll keep you posted...